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Powering Space Missions with Nuclear Science

Recently, the Trump administration inked its commitment to future space missions with a $19.5 billion dollar budget announcement to the U.S. Space Agency. Among the projects NASA has slated include a human mission to Mars sometime after 2030 and a Canada-U.S. partnership could help to provide the power to get there.

Studying the solar system is no easy feat. Minimal sunlight and severe weather conditions are just two challenges that face outer space explorations. On Mars, nighttime temperatures can fall below -70 degrees Celsius and violent dust storms can destroy solar panels. Harsh environments and ever evolving missions require an effective power and heat source for spacecraft.

Enter nuclear science and radioisotope power systems.

Billions of miles away from a gas station or electric charging station, radioisotope power systems (RPS) have allowed scientists to research and study the limits of our solar system. Electricity is produced from the decay of the isotope plutonium 238 (Pu-238). As the isotope decays it gives off a tremendous amount of heat energy which is converted into electricity. With a half-life of 88 years, a radioisotope power system is able to provide continuous energy for long term deep space missions. As compared to solar power, an RPS can reach into deep space where solar power is ineffective.

However, there is a limited supply of Pu-238 that is needed for deep space research leaving the future of deep space exploration potentially in the dark.

Enter a Canadian-U.S. collaboration and a proposal to shift space research into high gear. A partnership between Technical Solutions Management (TSM), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) would support and augment the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) program to renew the production of Pu-238, allowing scientists to continue their exploration of the solar system.

“Our hope is to land a contract to expand the amount of Pu-238 that is available for space exploration,” according to Glen Elliott, Director, Business Development, Ontario Power Generation.

Mars Rover: Curiosity

If approved, the mission could be well on its way to powering future space ventures in the next 5 years, by 2022. The concept would rely on a commercial reactor to produce the necessary isotope, specifically OPG’s Darlington reactor.

“The flexibility of the plan makes it ideal. Depending on the mission requirements, it could be scaled up or down customizing the amount of fuel needed,” according to Elliott. “The Darlington reactor has online fueling capability and an ideal neutron flux so you can precisely control the irradiation time.”

A neutron flux is comprised of two elements; the speed and distance that the neutrons cover. Like football players on a field, the neutron flux is the speed at which the players are running and the total distance of the field that they cover.

The other benefit of the Darlington reactor is that it can produce the fuel needed for radioisotope power systems while performing its primary objective of producing electricity.

“This project is just another example of the broad economic and societal benefits of nuclear power. It provides clean, low-cost power, it helps in the medical world and if successful can be a part of the next generation of space travel,” said Jeff Lyash, President & Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Power Generation.

The proposal would help ensure an adequate global supply of Pu-238 for space missions and strengthen a Canada-U.S. partnership while creating jobs, boosting the economy and advancing the field of science exploration.

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Low Carbon, Clean Energy: Making Communities Healthier

According to the U.S Energy Department’s latest International Energy Outlook 2016 (IEO), worldwide energy consumption will increase by almost 50 percent by 2040. Meeting global demand will require growing the renewable and nuclear power industries.

The IEA forecasts that worldwide nuclear power, which currently offsets an estimated 2.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions yearly, will slightly increase in its contribution to the global electricity grid. The forecasted 2 percent increase is not nearly enough. If countries like Canada are to meet COP21 targets and improve the health of our environment we need more nuclear.

Information confirmed in the latest IEO report found “even though non fossil fuels are expected to grow faster than fossil fuels (petroleum and other liquid fuels, natural gas and coal), fossil fuels will still account for more than three-quarters of world energy consumption through 2040.”

health2An extreme shift in weather patterns brought about by greenhouse gas emissions  has resulted in more heat and flooding, increasing the amount of ground-level ozone, carbon dioxide and particulates – all of which have negative health consequences

The climate change price tag for Canada’s healthcare industry is a hefty one. Data released by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) found that by 2031 air pollution related illnesses, including lost productivity and ER admissions could cost Canadian taxpayers close to $250 billion.

The projected ongoing use of fossil fuels is a concern both for meeting climate targets and for improving air quality which are critical components to improving overall health. In a 2014 news release, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported “in 2012 around 7 million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.”

In Canada, the rates of Severe Asthma are rising, due in part to climate change. Over a quarter-million Canadians live with severe asthma.  Furthermore, allergies can be triggered by mold related to flooding and by increased pollen production from distressed plants.

“People with severe asthma may struggle to breathe even when they are taking their prescribed medication,” states Vanessa Foran, President and CEO of the Asthma Society of Canada.  “Environmental allergens are the primary triggers for 60-80 % of Canadians living with asthma,” she says.

Continuing to invest in low-carbon energy sources is an important step in improving air quality. The year 2000 saw a peak for coal-fired electricity generation in Ontario, with almost 50 million tons of GHG emissions being released into the environment. Fifteen years later, nuclear energy accounted for the majority of electricity generation – 66.5%, displacing over 90% of emissions, thereby cleaning the air and improving the health of Ontarians.

As Canada’s largest province moves forward in developing its next Long-Term Energy Plan, which has a key focus on clean, reliable energy, it is clear that nuclear must be at the forefront of discussions.

A safe and reliable energy source that contributes to climate commitments, nuclear power can help to improve the health of people around the world while meeting an increased global demand for energy.

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MZConsulting New Year’s Message 2017

By Milt Caplan
President
MZConsulting Inc.

Originally posted at http://mzconsultinginc.com/.

2016 was another tumultuous year for nuclear power. Decisions to close units in the USA early due to economic pressures in deregulated markets and the slow pace of restarting nuclear units in Japan continue to negatively impact the uranium market. However, the tide has now turned as the benefits to the environment and system reliability are being more broadly accepted with both New York and Illinois having taken decisions to keep marginal plants running.

Uranium producers continue to struggle due to low prices

The stock prices of Cameco in Canada, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy in the US and Paladin in Namibia, along with uranium holder Uranium Participation are once again in negative territory in 2016. That is symptomatic of a current supply-anddemand imbalance. However, some Juniors such as Forsys, Mega and UEX, with highly prospective properties not in production, have done better in 2016. This is perhaps indicative that, while the immediate problem is falling uranium prices, the market recognized that new supply will be required in the longer term.

The spot price of uranium continued to fall throughout 2016 going as low as $18/lb in November before ending the year at $20.25/lb. Has the price finally hit bottom? Probably yes. The long-term price, only at around $30/lb, is finally in a place where even the low-cost producers are slowing production as they focus on cost cutting to remain viable. While more positive trends for the longer term continue, prices are likely to stay soft in the short to medium term until demand recovers.

Production in 2015 shows that of 19 producing countries, Kazakhstan (39%) is by far the largest uranium producer followed by Canada (22%) and Australia (9%). These three countries produce over two-thirds of the world’s uranium. Cameco’s McArthur River (12%) and Cigar Lake (7%) in Saskatchewan are the two largest uranium mines in the world, supplying some 19% of world production while eleven companies marketed 89% of the world’s uranium production with Cameco ranking second behind KazAtomProm.

Crisis creates clarity in the role of nuclear power

Economic pressures in dysfunctional US electricity markets as a result of very low gas prices and subsidized renewables, have put some 15 to 20 nuclear plants at risk of early closure. This has forced reluctant law makers to address the issue with many coming out in support of maintaining the nuclear fleet as an essential part of the mix based on nuclear’s low carbon footprint and its contribution to system reliability.

The result was an agreement in New York and in Illinois to keep struggling nuclear plants afloat. That being said, there is still more work to be done to solve the larger problem of markets that need reform. It was a pivotal year in the US, as the country’s first new nuclear plant in more than two decades, Watts Bar 2, came into service. Four more units are under construction, and NuScale has recently submitted the first application for design certification for an SMR. While support for nuclear is expected to continue, uncertainty remains as the new administration shows little interest in climate change and embraces fossil fuel development.

In Switzerland, the early closure for their nuclear plants was strongly rejected in a referendum while in Britain, there was a final commitment to the Hinkley Point C project with more new units to follow.

On the other hand, as another plant closed in Germany its carbon emissions continued to rise in 2016 as this plant was replaced with a combination of coal and gas. This was in spite of another 10% increase in new wind capacity and 2.5% of new solar capacity; and shows that trying to manage carbon while removing nuclear from the mix is extremely challenging.

Supply is finally responding to prices

One of the biggest issues facing the uranium market actually stems from the 2011 tsunami that resulted in the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan. That event caused Japan to shut all of its nuclear power plants and led Germany to accelerate its plan to shift away from the nuclear option. The swift shutdown of so many units pushed supply and demand way out of balance.

While it remains Japan’s intention to restart many of its shuttered nuclear facilities, progress continues to be very slow so that demand will be impacted for some time to come.

As a result, major producers like Cameco have been directing their efforts to cost-cutting and refocusing around its best mines. For example, the company reduced its capital spending projections for 2016 by around 10% and plans to cut operating costs further in 2017. Despite the downturn, it has continued to invest in its Cigar Lake mine because it’s relatively low cost to operate. The recent opening of that mine helped to cut Cameco’s cash costs of producing uranium by more than 20% through the first nine months of 2016.

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest producer, has been continuing to increase production year over year but now has announced it will cut production by 10% in 2017.

However, China will be entering the big leagues in uranium supply this year as the Husab mine in Namibia ramps up production. This elephant is expected to add about 15 million lbs to the market each year once it reaches full production. With mining costs above the current uranium prices and the world in oversupply, it will be interesting to see how China chooses to move forward.

Nuclear sector growth

In spite of all this apparent gloom and doom, the nuclear industry remains strong. 10 new units were completed in 2016, while three were closed. Of interest, only half of these completions were in China with the other half coming from Korea, India, Pakistan, Russia and the USA. With 60 reactors under construction world-wide; led by China, this is the largest nuclear new build construction in more than a quarter century. As China continues to meet their stated objective of 58GW by 2020, this period of weak uranium prices presents an opportunity to further build strong inventories for the future.

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NASA and Nuclear Power

marssoilviewNASA’s history with nuclear power dates all the way back to the early 1960s when the U.S. Navy launched a navigation satellite powered by nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy’s ability to withstand the most extreme conditions has made it an important part of space missions, including the Mars 2020 mission. The next journey to the Red Planet will focus on bringing back soil samples and exploring the atmosphere of Mars to determine its habitability for human life.

NASA recently highlighted the significance of nuclear energy stating, “Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Europa, Saturn, Titan, Uranus, Neptune, the moon, asteroids and comets.  A number of these missions could be enabled or significantly enhanced by the use of radioisotope power systems (RPS).”

A RPS works like this: Through the natural decaying process, isotopes produce a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of an RPS, as the isotope plutonium-238 decomposes the heat is converted into electricity which in turn is used to power travel through space. Plutonium-238 is an artificial element with a half-life of 88 years. The longevity of nuclear energy makes the RPS an ideal and reliable source of power generation even under the harshest of circumstances.

The challenging environment includes temperature extremes not known to earth. Take the moon for example. Temperatures on the surface of the moon can fluctuate between highs of 125 degrees Celsius and lows of -175 degrees. Another challenge with travelling to the outer reaches of the solar system, such as with the New Horizons missions, is being able to conduct research in the dark, requiring a power source that can still operate without the energy of the sun.

For the Mars missions, a big factor in power selection is dust. During its infamous dust storms, the red planet can kick up dust to last for weeks at a time, coating “continent-sized areas,” according to NASA.

Nuclear power has the added benefit of being compact.

“Solar would be too big and we’ve that learned dust in the Martian atmosphere accumulates on the solar cells, so unless you have wind storms to clear them off, you will kill the missions off by running down the batteries,” according to Dr. Ralph McNutt, principal investigator for the New Horizons Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI), from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “If you want to run rovers on Mars and do it accurately and if you want to go to the moon and really investigate in permanent shadows you need nuclear power.”

Compact size isn’t just beneficial, it’s required when working in outer space. Einstein’s theory of relativity (E=Mc2), essentially states that the further the distance you want to travel, the more speed is required, therefore the mass of the object travelling must decrease.

The Rover for Mars 2020 will be about the size of a car and will measure approximately 7 feet in height. The nuclear powered MARS 2020 mission will launch in the summer of 2020 and could provide new clues to past life on the not so distant planet.

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Setting the Record Straight on the Price of Electricity

By John Barrett
President and CEO
Canadian Nuclear Association

Environmental Defence has a new online campaign in which they are trying to pin the blame for Ontario’s electricity costs on nuclear, while at the same time ignoring nuclear’s role in helping Ontario’s landmark achievement of ending coal-fired electricity generation.

These alternative facts have been discredited by many, including the findings of Ontario’s Auditor General’s 2015 report on electric power system planning.

On electricity prices, the low cost of nuclear was recently highlighted in a news release from the Ontario Energy Board, which indicated nuclear accounted for only 38 per cent of the Global Adjustment while generating 59 per cent of the electricity.
In 2016, nuclear power generated 61% of Ontario’s electricity at well below the amounts paid to other generators. In fact, the average price of nuclear was 6.6 cents per kWh compared to the average residential price of 11 cents per kWh.

Wind and solar make up a small amount of Ontario’s electricity bill because they make up a small amount of Ontario’s electricity grid. Wind generated only six per cent of Ontario’s electricity in 2016 and solar less than one per cent. Despite this modest output, wind and solar nevertheless accounted for 26 per cent of the Global Adjustment.

There is a myth that, due to the capital investments required in nuclear power, the consequence is a high price of power. This simply isn’t true. That’s because nuclear facilities operate for decades and generate large volumes of electricity on a consistent basis. Ontario’s nuclear facilities have a demonstrated track-record of high reliability. That’s why the province is reinvesting in them now.

Environmental Defence has also failed to mention nuclear’s important role in Ontario’s phase-out of coal in 2014 and ending smog days across the province, suggesting it was new wind and solar alone that got the job done.

A fact check would show that between 2000 and 2013, nuclear-powered electrical generation rose 20 percent in Ontario, coinciding with a 27 percent drop in coal-fired electricity. During the same period, non-hydro renewables increased to 3.4 percent from one percent. This major transition to a cleaner Ontario could not have happened without nuclear.

During that period, Bruce Power doubled its fleet of operating reactors from four to eight, becoming the world’s largest nuclear generating station. While more renewable energy did come on line, Bruce Power estimates they provided 70% of the carbon free energy needed to replace the power from the shutdown of coal plants.

The long-term investment programs currently underway across Ontario’s nuclear fleet, including Pickering, Darlington and Bruce Power, will secure this low-cost source of electricity over the long-term, while meeting our needs today.

Nuclear-generated electricity was the right choice for Ontario decades ago. It remains the right choice today.

OPG and Bruce Power recognize the cost of electricity for Ontario families and businesses is an important issue across the Province. Both companies are committed to clean air and continuing to provide low cost electricity for Ontario homes and businesses in the short, medium and long-term.

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The CNS/CNA Honours and Awards Committee is Still Seeking Nominations

The deadline to submit nominations for the 2017 Canadian Nuclear Achievement Awards, jointly sponsored by the Canadian Nuclear Society (CNS) and the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA), has been extended to February 3, 2017.

These Awards represent an opportunity to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions, technical and non-technical, to various aspects of nuclear science and technology in Canada. They will officially be presented during the CNS Annual Conference, held June 4 – 7, 2017 in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Nominations may be submitted for any of the following Awards:

  • W. B. Lewis Medal
  • Ian McRae Award
  • Harold A. Smith Outstanding Contribution Award
  • Innovative Achievement Award
  • John S. Hewitt Team Achievement Award
  • Education and Communication Award
  • George C. Laurence Award for Nuclear Safety
  • Fellow of the Canadian Nuclear Society
  • R. E. Jervis Award

For detailed information on the nomination package, Awards criteria, and how to submit the nomination, see the linked brochure or visit: cns-snc.ca/cns/awards. The nomination package shall include a completed and signed nomination checklist.

If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact Ruxandra Dranga.